Tag Archives: memory

The Beauty in the Ordinary

boyhood_still

I am a writer today because I was a blogger first. Some 11 years ago I began a pseudonymous blog, as was the custom at the time–a place to write about my kids, ministry, and life in general. I wrote poems and top ten lists and meditations on parenting. I wrote liturgy but also cursed freely. It was a liberating space because there were no names attached, though if you knew me and stumbled upon it, you’d recognize me quickly. At least that’s what I always hoped. Authenticity, with a Google-proof veil of privacy.

Now eleven years and hundreds of posts later, I write this blog, I author books and articles for a living, I freelance for a non-profit, and I speak to groups about a whole host of things. But I don’t write as much personal stuff. Sabbath in the Suburbs has some memoir-ish elements in it, but I don’t know that I’ll publish another biographical book any time soon. My kids deserve not to be on display as they mature.

There is one place where I still write personal things. For the past few years I’ve been keeping three paper journals, one for each child. I call it The Memory Project. In it I write one-sentence entries about what’s going on in their lives. I keep it to one sentence because a paragraph or page is too much. One sentence is a small enough goal that I’ll actually do it.

My hope was to write every day, but every three weeks is more like it. I strive to record the quotidian moments as well as the milestones. In fact, I hope to write more of the former than the latter, since the latter are often easier to recall later.

This beautiful Atlantic article, The Value of Remembering Ordinary Moments, helps spur me along in this discipline:

Quotidian life seems too banal to document. Why write down routine conversations, ones we’ve had a million times and will have a million times more? Isn’t it more important to remember extraordinary moments: first steps, graduations, jobs, awards, marriage, retirement, vacations? Yet people seldom realize how fondly they will look back on days spent mundanely: a day spent reading in the bay window, a picnic in the park with friends. These things may not stick out while they are happening, but revisiting them can be a great pleasure. “Who would call a day spent reading a good day?” writes Annie Dillard. “But a life spent reading—that is a good life.”

I write these journals because I hope my kids will want this window into their childhood some day. I write because some things are too precious for Facebook… and other things are too mundane for it. But according to the article, it’s the everyday experience that we crave:

The people in the study were most interested in rediscovering the mundane experiences. Asked to write down what they were doing on an ordinary day (a few days before Valentine’s Day) and then on an extraordinary day (on Valentine’s Day), participants had more pleasure reading their entry about the ordinary day three months later than their entry about the extraordinary day.

When I reflect on my childhood, I remember the Christmas I got the entire series of Sweet Valley High paperback books (at least, the mere fifteen that had been published at that point). I remember the family trip to Colorado and the sooty chug-chug of the Silverton to Durango train. I remember my baby brother getting into my prescription medicine when I had the chicken pox and watching from the upstairs window as the paramedics drove away with him to get his stomach pumped. But I don’t remember what my random Thursdays were like. I don’t remember what our go-to dinner was on busy nights before my mother led the Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember shoe shopping.

My favorite movie of 2014 was Boyhood. Many people appreciated the cinematic achievement of following the same actors for seven years, but thought the story itself was boring. I agree that the movie was about the in-between moments–the fight before the divorce, the party after graduation–but I consider that a feature, not a bug. The scenes of a mother driving her son to school or a father taking his kids for pizza–those are the precious places of everyday grace.

Those moments are what make up a life. That kind of vision, a vision of the sacred in the ordinary, is what I mean when I talk about living Sabbathly. Living Sabbathly means we are awake to our life as it unfolds. And life unfolds primarily in ordinary moments.

 

Day 2 of #BoredandBrilliant: No Photos!

It’s day 2 of the Bored and Brilliant Challenge! Read my initial reflections on the project, yesterday’s reflections, or check out the website and the New Tech City podcast, which sponsors the project.

Here’s day 2:

Your instructions: See the world through your eyes, not your screen. Take absolutely no pictures today. Not of your lunch, not of your children, not of your cubicle mate, not of the beautiful sunset. No picture messages. No cat pics. 

Today’s instructions are not a big stretch for me—I think I’m enough of a digital immigrant that I don’t feel the need to record everything with a photo, and I can easily go a day without taking a picture. But I did take note of the neurological research showing that taking a photo negatively impacts your ability to remember the event.

I think a lot about the impact technology has on memory. Evernote is one of my killer apps; I use it for almost everything. I also know that I often reflexively dump stuff there rather than doing the deeper thinking that can help it lodge in my memory. You can argue that in the age of cheap storage, memory has become obsolete. But how can you access something if you don’t even remember what the something is?

What will be the collective effect of all this outsourcing of memory?

Louis CK has a hilarious, on point, and crude bit about people who record their kids’ performances. It is here–and I have warned you about the language, so don’t write me letters. But for something quite different on the same topic, check out the following short video about a museum guard who works at the Guggenheim. He has seen immense change in how people experience the museum since the advent of smartphones:

Update on the Memory Project

source: CaityQuilter.com, a very intriguing blog

Several months ago I posted about a new practice I’ve undertaken: to record tidbits about the kids in individual journals, one sentence per day. You can read about the project and rationale here. Since there were quite a few people who were interested in the practice, I thought I’d provide an update and some thoughts.

The Blue Room is a place for inspiration, but also truth telling: I am still at the memory project, but if I manage one entry per week I’m doing well. This creates a mental struggle. I envisioned these journals as a place to record the everyday jewels of parenthood that are easily forgotten over the years. But if I let too much time elapse between entries, I end up wanting to make sure the Big Important Milestones are recorded. This requires more mental energy than I’d expected the practice to require. The whole point was to write the first thing that came to mind, no matter how ordinary, but if I’m having to sort through the past week to find the most journal-worthy thing… well, that’s too tough and becomes a barrier to doing it at all.

Also, the fact that there are three of them, and I feel the need for some parity, works against me. Part of what’s fun about the journals is that they’re not just baby books, which means the thirdborn’s should have just as much content as the girls’. (I love Erma Bombeck’s old bit about her kids’ baby books; by the time her last child came along, the sole contents of his baby book consisted of a pie crust recipe torn from the newspaper and tucked into the otherwise empty pages.) I feel like I should write in each journal each night, but sometimes there’s more going on with one kid than with the other two.

Like most spiritual disciplines and parenting practices, I see this practice evolving. My ultimate hope remains the same: to present each child with a handwritten book of quotidian wisdom and observations from their childhood. And if I end up handing them a book with 15 months of memories followed by a lot of blank pages, well, that communicates something worthwhile too: that life is about experimentation—starting more projects than one could possibly finish. Completion can be an elusive thing in life, but there’s something valuable in the undertaking.

Today’s Sabbath-ish Thought

Actually, since I’m working on the book, I am having more than one Sabbath-ish thought per day. Why, some days I have as many as 3.5 Sabbath-ish thoughts!

My friend Marci posted a link on FB to an NPR story about Joan Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights, in which she writes about the death of her daughter. (I reviewed The Year of Magical Thinking some time back.)

Marci was startled into awareness by this quote in the story:

Didion writes that in theory, these mementos should bring back the moment, but in fact, they only make clear how inadequately she appreciated the moment back when it happened.

I am certain that, had I heard the story, it would have been the money quote for me as well.

Part of my impulse to explore Sabbath is to try and cheat time, in a sense—to slow it down to the speed of savoring, just one day a week, by not having to be anywhere, do anything, prove myself, develop skills, inculcate kids, bring order to chaos. Sabbath has been an exercise in mindfulness and awareness—the kind of mindfulness Didion grieves the lack of as she beholds touchstone objects from the past. My Memory Project, too, has been a way of capturing on paper the essence of these days.

I was thinking about all this today, as James played on a church playground with Margaret while Caroline rehearsed with her children’s choir inside. The world was washed with gold as the sun receded, and I knew that in a week, this hour of the day would be blue-black and cold.

I found myself watching them with love, recording the scene as fully as I could, just as an exercise. One of the things that drives me, in parenthood and life, is not wanting to have the experience Didion describes, a wistful, heartbreaking “I missed it.”

But I realized today, I will have that experience; indeed, there is no way not to. Every day is full of golden moments. You simply cannot hold on to them all. You can’t even hold on to a fraction of them. They are too numerous, growing in number constantly. And they are simultaneously too precious to record in our memory banks adequately, and too quotidian to register as something to remember.

When loss comes to us, we will never feel we have appreciated the moment enough. That’s what grief is.

Didion’s experience is not a call to intentionality for the rest of us, although I am a big believer in intentionality. Rather, what she describes is an inevitable by-product of love and death. There is no remedy for what she describes in her book, no amount of intentionality or mindfulness that will keep us from the same fate.

I found this amazingly freeing.